Public service broadcasting

If anyone from somewhere other than these islands is reading this, they may not know what I am talking about in this post, so a quick explanation up front. Jonathan Ross is a radio and television presenter on the BBC; his regular Friday night TV show on BBC1 draws millions of viewers, and he has gained great popularity with his quick wit and irreverent manner, and his somewhat risqué approach to some topics. Russell Brand is a comedian with an unusual style in comedy and clothes. They are good friends, and in October 2008 they created a scandal when they made some prank telephone calls (broadcast on Brand’s radio show) to a respected actor suggesting that one of them had had sex with the actor’s granddaughter. There was significant fall-out as sections of the public protested. Brand had to resign from his slot on the BBC, and Ross was suspended from his radio and TV programmes for three months.

Last Friday Jonathan Ross returned to his regular show, and opened it with an apology for his misjudgement in the prank calls – before returning fairly quickly to his irreverent interviewing style, before an audience of some 4 million.

I confess I am a regular viewer of the television show, and felt the gap in the schedules during his enforced absence. I also rather like Russell Brand’s quirky style of comedy. And yet, there seems to me to be something of broader significance in all this – evidence of the evaporation of a shared understanding of what the broadcast media can and should, or cannot and should not, do. Whether we may have liked it or not, in the 1960s – when there were just a handful of stations – there was a fairly clear consensus of the limits imposed on broadcasters, who by and large were in the business of providing a public service that focused on education, culture and drama, even when the programme was about entertainment. Nowadays of course we have hundreds of stations, and we will shortly have thousands and thousands as virtually anyone can broadcast over the internet. Can we still hope to maintain some sort of code of conduct in those circumstances, and do we need to?

It is sometimes argued that for those who were able to view it the BBC was one of the most important and positive cultural influences of the second half of the 20th century. It more or less defined the concept of public service broadcasting. And many (sometimes including me) express the view that this key mission must not only be protected but enforced.  But is there a public appetite for, or even tolerance of, a broadcaster that concerns itself solely with high-minded and educational programmes?

Actually, I suspect there is, though I am not sure that it needs to be focused just on one media organisation such as the BBC. When multi-channel TV first made an appearance in this part of the world, the majority of the new channels contained programmes that were almost entirely rubbish. Games shows (with ridiculously low intellectual standards), pulp music, more games shows, low budget soaps, and of course games shows – these were the standard fare. Twenty or more years on, many of the huge selection of channels serve up educational topics, culture, the arts, history, politics, and so on. Public service broadcasting may be more dispersed than previously, but it is still alive and well.

I suspect we can cut the BBC some slack. Let it have Jonathan Ross and even some games shows – and then let it also continue to fly the flag for public service broadcasting. And when someone gets something wrong, let us not pretend that this is a global disaster that requires a government to fall. Let us have high standards, but let us also relax a little.

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